On Hold, with Frank Mighty’s Hotline

Recently, John Traboulsi, a Toronto-based musician who performs indie-pop music under the moniker Frank Mighty’s Hotline, biked north on Yonge Street toward a very important interview. He planned to meet Mathew Silver, a Toronto-based magazine editor, on the shaded patio of a fast-food restaurant, where Silver would grill him about the life of a modern artiste. Then Silver would write an article about the experience. When Traboulsi pulled up to the patio, dismounted and popped off his helmet, Silver sat prepping for their tete-a-tete.

These gentlemen have a bit of history. They both attended Western Canada High School in Calgary, AB, but have since moved to Toronto to pursue careers in arts and culture. This past connection presents a bit of a journalistic conundrum, given that Silver could potentially show bias in his depiction of Traboulsi. And even if Silver offered a fair and accurate analysis, nitpickers would still accuse him of partisanship. “He knew that guy in high school!” they might say. “How could he possibly be objective?” Fair enough. A disclaimer becomes obligatory under the circumstances. Dear readers, beware: their friendship may inform the article, approach everything with skepticism, trust nobody.

Imagine the scene. Traboulsi and Silver are sitting across from one another at a small table, during a particularly bizarre period in human history. To get a sense of the cultural disquietude, consider that three of the following things are true: 1. A deadly virus that originated in the wet markets of Wuhan, China is circulating the globe, racking up a death count of more than 500,000 people 2. Rapper Kanye West briefly tried to run for president against megalomaniacal reality TV star Donald Trump, who is seeking his second term in the White House 3. Comedian Carrot Top recently revived his career with a horrifying, tragicomic act that includes a caged crocodile, red food colouring and a prosthetic leg 4. The death of a Minneapolis man named George Floyd, who died of asphyxiation after a police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes, incited a mix of peaceful protests and violent riots in a global reckoning for racial equality. (answer at the bottom)

Before the pandemic, Traboulsi had played three shows as Frank Mighty’s Hotline, at venues like Mod Club and Rivoli, where world-class acts like Drake, Adele and Dave Grohl have performed in the past. He’d also released three solid songs. (Which Silver will try to describe, despite knowing that writing about music is about as useful as dancing about painting.) There’s “What Am I To Do,” an acoustic ballad about yearning and loss, with instrumentals that evoke the melancholy and sparseness of Bon Iver’s early albums. “When Else” and “Intertwined” are more reminiscent of British pop, with shifty electric guitar in the background and spirited, dance-y choruses. When listening, a couple things become clear: Traboulsi has a knack for dreaming up pretty melodies and crafting clear, imagine-laden lyrics. His first few tracks were a promising start to the Frank Mighty’s project—until the lockdown paused much of Traboulsi’s artistic momentum.

These days, everything seems to be on hold. Music venues are closed. Most employees are working from home. International flights are limited. And Traboulsi, who planned to release a suite of four songs (an EP) in the summer of 2020, sidelined that project and switched to playing online shows, which he found quite boring, especially compared to the thrill of live, in-person performances. However, Traboulsi considered the downtime to be surprisingly productive. He even just released a song, “Hold Me Down.”

“The pandemic kind of put a fork in the road,” said Traboulsi. “But it’s weird, I’m kind of happy it happened, because I think the music I’m making now is better than what I was going to release.” Traboulsi pushed the release of his EP back to 2021. In the upcoming EP, Traboulsi will explore a new theme that has recently been wracking his brain: what it means to be successful. So, what’s the answer? Well, Traboulsi is still figuring that out, but he’s narrowed it down considerably. It could be getting rich, having a self-sustaining career as a musician, garnering a large online following, or simply writing an album that gets a favourable review on a website like Pitchfork, the crème-de-la-crème of music criticism.

In the meantime, Traboulsi works a 9-5 job at 7shifts, selling restaurant scheduling software. His goal, of course, is to shift to making music full-time. Every minute that he’s not on the clock, Traboulsi dedicates to music, whether he’s writing, recording or brushing up on music theory. He wants to write smart songs that make people think and feel, to combine lyrics and melodies to create an aesthetic experience for listeners, to transform the mundane into the beautiful. A noble goal indeed. But the music industry is notoriously difficult to crack right now, in part because the Internet has democratized who can release music. Some of the best artistic voices get drowned out by a sea of online noise.

“In a lot of ways, it’s kind of bullshit. I just like the music, but it’s become about more than just the music. You have to do your own marketing and social media. If you just post yourself playing music, it’s boring. Who gives a shit? But if you’re a wacky person, you do fun stuff and you make music, that might play in your favour,” said Traboulsi. “But in a lot of ways, it’s great. Because you have all these tools to do it yourself, there are fewer barriers to entry. It’s funny, like, people who maybe got super successful using the Internet are like, ‘Anybody can do this.’ But that’s also the problem.”

Flashback to December, 1992, when, at the age of less than one minute old, Traboulsi first exercised his vocal cords with a series of life-affirming wails. Soon after, he inherited his love of music from his parents, Dean and Marg, who are both patrons of the arts. They enjoy classical art and music, frequent the theatre. Traboulsi started learning classical guitar at five years old. His mother enrolled him in lessons because she thought it would be good for his brain, something to improve his intellectual development. Both of Traboulsi’s sisters, Danya and Renna, played the violin and fiddle. Eventually, Traboulsi’s musical tastes evolved to include music by Queen, Rod Stewart, Cher and Savage Garden. That’s what he listened to with his mother in their 1992 GMC suburban, a black gas-guzzling beast, while she shuttled him from school to guitar or basketball practice.

As Traboulsi got a little older, he started enjoying rock music. Bands like Blink 182, the Foo Fighters appealed more to his tastes. It became difficult for him to focus during classical guitar lessons, because he always wanted to experiment with different styles of music.

“It was funny, I would go into music lessons and my teacher could see that I wasn’t really into the classical music stuff. So, we’d do like 30 minutes of it at the beginning, go through the scales and stuff, then for the last 30 minutes, we would just jam out to classic rock songs. That’s what I wanted to do,” said Traboulsi.

Then, in Grade 8, Traboulsi produced some of his own stuff on Garageband, a music recording program available on most computers.

“There was no training or anything, just really yelling. Singing was not my thing. In hindsight, I was not very good,” said Traboulsi. “I’d play my guitar and smack one of those workout balls with a stick for percussion. It was the first time I ever really tried to write lyrics—like something meaningful—and I would get really embarrassed, even if I was by myself.”

His first song? A little ditty called “Cats,” which Traboulsi admits was not all that sophisticated.

“The lyrics were something, like, ‘Ca-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-ats,’” said Traboulsi, with a laugh. “I didn’t even like cats. It’s not good. It’s really not good.”

During his time at Western Canada High School, Traboulsi turned his attention away from music and focused on basketball. I remember watching him play for our school team, the Western Redmen, a veritable basketball powerhouse (by Calgary standards), in a yellow-y, poorly lit gymnasium. By senior year, he grew into a 6’4 forward, with a broad body, polished passing skills and a nice shooting touch. When necessary, he could ditch Coach Wiebe’s ingenious offensive system and power his way to the bucket for an easy two points.

That talent landed him a spot on the b-ball team at Dalhousie University, where he studied mechanical engineering. For the next four years, basketball (and presumably partying) still took precedence over music. In his fifth year of college, he elected to focus on school and slowly, surely rekindled his love for music. He started a band called Troubled Men with a few friends, then soon got his first taste of success in the industry.

“We got asked to open for Said the Whale, a big Canadian band. After that experience, I was like, Oh, this could be a cool thing to do. I had always loved music and I got the sense that it was something I could do full-time. The more I dove into it, the more it became, like, This is really something I want to do with my life.”

After graduating from undergrad, he went to Sheffield Hallam University, in England, to get his master’s in sports engineering. There, he started singing, writing and performing by himself—like the hero in any great narrative, he had to strike out on his own. He drew inspiration from British bands like Mumford and Sons, Oasis, Paolo Nutini and, his personal favourite, the 1975—an influence that bleeds into much of Traboulsi’s own music.

“I just love the British music scene. I just love British rock culture. The tones associated with it. What they sing about. I love subculture,” said Traboulsi. “The Manchester music scene is just notoriously famous. I lived 40 minutes from Manchester and I’d go there all the time just to go to random concerts, because I just loved being in it. You think about these huge bands that were discovered in these tiny venues. You never know which band could the next big thing.”

Post-grad, Traboulsi worked for FIFA, travelled for a couple months in Asia, then returned to Calgary for a short stint because he had nowhere else to go. In April 2018, he decided to ship off to Toronto, where Frank Mighty’s Hotline was born.

Most people have questions about the name of the band. Traboulsi stole the pseudonym from an obscure Facebook group where music lovers posted their favourite songs. Apparently, the group was created by a group of UBC students, who were under the influence of weed gummies during an Agriculture seminar, and were tickled by their professor’s pronunciation of the word “fragmite.” Fragmite evolved into fra-g-mite, which somehow morphed into Frank’s Mighty Hotline. Traboulsi liked it so much that he turned it into his band name.

Playing as Frankie gives Traboulsi a chance to play with persona, to embody someone else on stage. But how does Traboulsi differ from Frankie, his alter ego?

“Let’s say I get on stage, whenever I perform as John Traboulsi. I want people to say that I’m really good, that I handle myself well on stage. And, at that point, it’s like I’m playing more for that person instead of just going up there and having fun,” said Traboulsi. “So, Frankie is the guy who just goes up there and has a fucking blast. I take a lot of cues from an artist like Mac Demarco, who doesn’t give a flying fuck about what anyone thinks. He’s just having the time of his life. I can be like that.”

If Traboulsi continues his current trajectory—barring another global plague, the waters of Lake Ontario turning into blood, hordes of frogs raining down on the cityscape—he can be whoever he wants to be.

After the interview, Silver and Traboulsi ventured across the street to Starbucks, where they enjoyed some costly, frosty caffeine-injected drinks. Traboulsi purchased Silver a venti cold brew—a terrible breach of journalistic ethics. “He’s trying to bribe the journalist,” shout the naysayers. Those people are idiots. Traboulsi and Silver sipped their coffees, talked shop, then Traboulsi hopped back on his two-wheeler and ripped south on Yonge Street.

——-

(3. There’s not a chance Carrot Top could revive his career, even with such an outrageous stunt)

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